That night, we are told, the little band hid in the Garden of Gethsemane, outside Jerusalem. There a detachment of Temple police found them, and arrested Jesus. He was taken first to the house of Annas, a former high priest, then to that of Caiaphas; according to Mark the “Council”- probably a committee of the Sanhedrin- had already gathered there. Various witnesses testified against him, especially recalling his threat to destroy the Temple. When Caiaphas asked him whether he was “the Messiah, the Son of God,” Jesus is reported to have answered “I am he.” In the morning the Sanhedrin met, found him guilty of blasphemy (then a capital crime), and decided to bring him before the Roman procurator, who had come to Jerusalem to keep an eye on the Passover crowds.

Pontius Pilate was a hard man, who would later be summoned to Rome, accused of extortion and cruelty, and removed from office. Nevertheless, it did not seem to him that this mild-mannered preacher was a real danger to the state. “Are you the King of the Jews?” he asked. Jesus, says Matthew, answered ambiguously, “You have said it ( su eipas ).” Such details, reported presumably from hearsay and long after the event, must be held suspect; if we accept the text we must conclude that Jesus had resolved to die, and that Paul’s theory of atonement had some support in Christ. John quotes Jesus as adding: “For this I was born… to give testimony for the truth.” “What is truth?” asked the procurator- a question perhaps due to the metaphysical propensities of the Fourth Gospel, but well revealing the chasm between the sophisticated and cynical culture of the Roman and the warm and trustful idealism of the Jew. In any case, after Christ’s confession, the law required conviction, and Pilate reluctantly issued the sentence of death. Crucifixion was a Roman, not a Jewish, form of punishment. It was usually preceded by scourging, which, carried out thoroughly, left the body a mass of swollen and bloody flesh. The Roman soldiers crowned Christ with a wreath of thorns, mocking his royalty as “King of the Jews,” and placed upon his cross an inscription in Aramaic, Greek, and Latin: Iesus Nazarathaeus Rex Ioudaeorum. Whether or not Christ was a revolutionist he was obviously condemned as one by Rome; Tacitus, too, understood the matter so. A small crowd, such as could gather in Pilate’s courtyard, had called for Christ’s execution; now, however, as he climbed the hill of Golgotha, “he was followed by a great crowd of the people,” says Luke, and of women who beat their breasts and mourned for him. Quite clearly the condemnation did not have the approval of the Jewish people. All who cared to witness the horrible spectacle were free to do so; the Romans, who thought it necessary to rule by terror, chose, for capital offenses by other than Roman citizens, what Cicero called “the most cruel and hideous of tortures.” The offender’s hands and feet were bound (seldom nailed) to the wood; a projecting block supported the backbone or the feet; unless mercifully killed, the victim would linger there for two or three days, suffering the agony of immobility, unable to brush away the insects that fed upon his naked flesh, and slowly losing strength until the heart failed and brought an end. Even the Romans sometimes pitied the victim, and offered him a stupefying drink. The cross, we are told, was raised “at the third hour”- i.e., at nine in the morning. Mark reports that two robbers were crucified with Jesus, and “reviled him”; Luke assures us that one of them prayed to him. Of all the apostles only John was present; with him were three Marys- Christ’s mother, her sister Mary, and Mary Magdalene; “there were also some women watching from a distance.” Following the Roman custom, the soldiers divided the garments of the dying men; and as Christ had but one, they cast lots for it. Possibly we have here an interpolated remembrance of Psalm XXII, 18: “They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture.” The same Psalm begins with the words: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”- and this is the desperately human utterance that Mark and Matthew attribute to the dying Christ. Can it be that in those bitter moments the great faith that had sustained him before Pilate faded into black doubt? Luke, perhaps finding such words repugnant to the theology of Paul, substitutes for them: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit”- which in turn echoes Psalm XXXI, 5 with suspicious accuracy.

A soldier, pitying Christ’s thirst, held up to his mouth a sponge soaked in sour wine. Jesus drank, and said, “It is consummated.” At the ninth hour- at three in the afternoon- he “cried out with a loud voice, and gave up the ghost.” Luke adds- again revealing the sympathy of the Jewish populace- that “all the people that came together to that sight… smote their breasts and returned” to the town. Two kindly and influential Jews, having secured Pilate’s permission, took the body down from the cross, embalmed it with aloes and myrrh, and placed it in a tomb.